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Nathan Szanton got into the affordable housing arena after starting his career as a loan officer for the Maine State Housing Authority. Szanton, a Washington, D.C., native who came to Maine for law school and stayed, believes he needs to give back to society. Since founding the company in 1996, Szanton has been responsible for developing more than 600 apartment units in about two dozen projects.
Szanton recently grabbed headlines for walking away from a $13.5 million development plan in Cape Elizabeth after facing intense community opposition and a referendum. Even as Cape Elizabeth turned away the plan, Szanton has surged ahead with projects in Bath, Portland, Lewiston and Old Orchard Beach.
Mainebiz: Do you see housing as a basic human right?
Nathan Szanton: I do think it’s a right. Access to a safe place that you can afford to live, that’s a safe, decent place to live is like food and clothing. It’s a basic need. You can think of housing as a platform from which you do anything in life. If you don’t have a place to sleep, to take a shower and comb your hair in the morning, none of us would be very successful. We’d be constantly trying to keep our head above water, struggling for our most basic need.
If we don’t define it as a right, and we’re struggling to be safe, that seems really harsh.
MB: You recently canceled a proposed affordable housing development in Cape Elizabeth after facing community opposition. Did that experience sour you on trying to develop affordable housing in more affluent towns?
NS: We never had tried to build in any wealthy suburbs before. I don’t know how representative it is. The staff of the town was very supportive and I think identified with the need for housing for people making regular salaries. But there was a very vocal, small group who collected signatures. It was surprising to me how quickly they got 1,000 signatures in a town of 9,000 people to stop our project.
MB: Is NIMBY-ism on the rise or was Cape Elizabeth an unusual situation?
NS: NIMBY-ism is nowhere near the intensity as Cape Elizabeth. In Portland, there’s some density opposition, but it’s not the heavy political lift as in Cape Elizabeth. The time and energy it would have required of us to pursue Cape Elizabeth was not a good use of our limited resources.
MB: There’s been a lot of attention placed on the housing crunch in southern Maine, but is there a need for affordable housing throughout the state?
NS: Greater Portland and all of Maine have not done a good enough job building enough housing. Rental housing prices are rising faster than inflation and wages. For-sale housing is also rising faster. There are large swaths of the population that are priced out. It makes sense to build it everywhere, even in small towns.
MB: Do people get a wrong idea when they hear the term ‘affordable housing?’
NS: There are misconceptions about what affordable housing is that are outdated. People imagine poorly behaved people hanging out, smoking cigarettes and hanging laundry outside. Our properties are mixed income. Our properties read like regular market-rate housing. When we’re giving people tours, we’ve converted a lot of people with NIMBY stances. They initially fear that the properties will be poorly maintained but our properties look like a market-rate apartment.
MB: Affordable housing has become an issue even in the state Legislature. What are your thoughts on LD 2003, the bill introduced by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau?
NS: I support pretty much everything in this bill. We need to bring supply in line with demand. We need new ways to build housing. ADUs (accessory dwelling units) are a great idea in way that doesn’t change the look of a community. In the same way, the idea that any zone that allows single family homes must allow ‘four-plexes,’ it helps add density in a way that doesn’t disrupt the community. It weaves density in organically.
There are other parts of the bill that makes every town have to allow multifamily housing. Does every city and town need to play a role? I think so. A town can’t say ‘I’m sitting this out.’ That’s not appropriate. Somewhere in town has to have multifamily housing.
MB: Where did your strong beliefs in community and helping others come from?
NS: I grew up in a family where it was expected that you try to make the world a better place. I looked for a field where I could do that. At the Maine State Housing Authority, it was the first time I felt I was helping the state of Maine in a positive way.
My mom was a Quaker and the Quakers are all about social justice. A lot of my ancestors were involved in social justice causes, such as opening a school for Native Americans in the 1800s. My dad is Jewish and there’s a large emphasis on justice and trying to help people on the outside. Jews are aware of what it’s like to be on the outside and there’s a strong culture expectation of helping others.
MB: Who were your mentors?
NS: My long-term business partner Bobby Monks, who has been my partner since 2002, is by far my biggest mentor for business and how to get through obstacles.
MB: Do you ever get push-back on being a ‘developer’ when your role is really about bringing about affordable housing rather than luxury units?
NS: I talk about what I develop and that it’s useful for society. It’s housing for people we all depend on — the child care worker, the restaurant server, the fire fighter — all those people deserve a way to live. I’m not doing some nefarious activity. And the term developer has become a kind of nefarious word. People will say that projects ‘line the pockets of developers’ as if we’re forces of evil. It’s an incredible over-simplification of the world and the term. You do see the word developer used as an epithet.
MB: Is there any project that has a special place in your heart or a favorite that you’ve done?
NS: There’s one, the Mill at Saco Falls, where we adapted a historic building into affordable housing. That has a special soft spot in my heart. That’s a favorite. It was a first.
MB: Would you ever have any interest in building a luxury development?
NS: My heart and soul are in affordable housing. We build Chevys. We don’t build Audis and Cadillacs. I want to provide people with good, decent housing.